Maybe Horses Will Fly - Developing Countries and Global Warming

April 15, 2008 | Siddhartha Shome,

Last week, the New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin blogged about the World Bank's decision to finance a major new coal fired power plant in India. Revkin ended his blog with a question: "Is all of this bad? If you're one of many climate scientists foreseeing calamity, yes. If you're a village kid in rural India looking for a light to read by, no."

india poverty.jpg

In response, the famed environmental writer Bill McKibben asked his own question:

"The really interesting question, to follow on the last sentence of the story, is: what if you're an Indian kid looking for a light to read by-and also living near the rising ocean, or vulnerable to the the range expansion of dengue-bearing mosquitoes, or dependent on suddenly-in-question monsoonal rains."

McKibben may think he knows better but I think the answer for that village kid would probably be the same. Take the electricity and the light to read by and worry about malaria and monsoonal rains later. To get some idea of the problems facing people in rural India, just consider the following:

1. In India, the literacy rate is only 64%. The female literacy rate is even lower. In half the households in rural India, there is not a single female member above the age of 15 who can read or write.

2. Out of a population of one billion, more than 300 million Indians live on less than a dollar a day.

3. In India, some 400,000 children under the age of five die each year from diarrhoea caused by easily preventable factors such as poor hygiene and unsafe drinking water.

4. Indian society continues to be plagued by extreme forms of discrimination and exploitation based on the traditional caste system. There are many millions (estimates range from 40 million to 100 million) of bonded laborers (slaves) in India today, mainly belonging to the lowest castes, the Dalits.

5. There still exists widespread discrimination against women in India. Economist Amartya Sen estimates that in the developing world, due to the preference for sons over daughters, and due to the sheer neglect of women and girls, some 100 million women are simply missing.

In this scenario, how can one seriously suggest that the village kid in India should give up her hopes of prosperity, education, and health care today, in order to prevent rising ocean levels many years down the road? What would Americans do in the same situation? Or Europeans? Or human beings anywhere?

There are some very good reasons why people in rural India should first worry about their basic human necessities today, rather than about the long term effects of global warming.

First, if you and your family don't have access to such things as clean water and basic health care, neither you, nor your children, nor your grandchildren may even be around long enough to witness tomorrow, making the future rise or fall of the world's oceans a moot point.

Second, the life of an educated, healthy and modestly prosperous person living in tomorrow's globally-warmed world of higher ocean levels may well be better than the poverty stricken life of an Indian villager in the pre-global-warming world. In other words, even if the most dire predictions about global warming come true, some of the poorest people in the world may still be better off tomorrow if they are able to enjoy some of the fruits of development, such as education, health care, electricity, etc.

Third, and most important, maybe horses will fly. Let me tell you an Indian story about the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his witty minister, Birbal. One day, for some reason, Akbar became very angry with Birbal, and ordered that he be beheaded. Birbal pleaded for his life, but to no avail. Then Birbal hit upon an idea. He promised Akbar, that if he was spared for a year, he would make Akbar's favorite horse fly. Akbar relented, and let Birbal live. When a friend asked Birbal how he planned to make the horse fly, Birbal replied, "anything can happen in a year; Akbar can die; the horse can die; and who knows, maybe the horse will fly." In a slightly different context, what this means is that, first and foremost, human beings need to achieve a certain minimum level of material well-being and sense of security. And once this is achieved, who knows what wonders can happen. If the billions of impoverished people in the developing world can get widespread access to education, health care, and job opportunities, who knows what the unleashing of their talent and energy can achieve. Having met their basic needs, maybe they will start thinking about the environment. Maybe new ideas will burst forth. Maybe new and better energy technologies will be adopted, which will not only address global warming, but also ensure a minimum standard of living for all people everywhere. Maybe horses will fly.

As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger put it in the book Breakthrough, "the satisfaction of the material needs of food and water and shelter is not an obstacle to but rather the precondition for the modern appreciation of the nonhuman world".


Siddhartha, given the literacy rate in India, this whole question seems to be a red herring. As much as literacy rates are a huge focus for Non Resident Indians, I'd say that many to most villagers are primarily focused on attaining clean water to drink and food to eat. It seems to me that very few villagers in India would be looking for a light to read by. And most of them don't tend to see education as a way to get ahead, but see migration to the cities as their only possible choice.

In any case, why can't we do both? Why can't we put clean electricity and composting toilets in every village in Madhya Pradesh? It doesn't make sense to force the villages of India through a mini industrial revolution and the technological revolution so that they can eventually arrive where they are today.

And I don't need to tell you that the villagers of India have received the bad end of the stick while urban India has received most of the gains from the development of India. Look at the Sardar Sarovar Dam. It displaced thousands of tribal people, and for what benefit to them? The vast majority of that water went to urban cities, not villages. You know as well as I do the corruption that runs rampant in India. Even if this coal plant is intended to add rural India to the grid, what are the chances that that's actually going to happen in a timely and cost-efficient manner?

This doesn't have to be an either/or scenario. There are NGOs in India today doing work IN the villages themselves on sustainable development. They are building tube wells and building small dams IN the villages. This means that there is limited room for corruption. The projects are numerous but each one is not too costly which makes it easier to finance. Simply put, we can choose electricity AND sustainability. So why don't we do that instead?

By arduous on 2008 04 21

My latest op ed for CFACT, "The U.N.'s broken promise: How sustainable development impacts the poor" -- []
expresses much this viewpoint, that - "What makes the sustainable development architects nervous is the fact that Africans and the rest of the world's poor today are in fact quite capable of solving their own economic and environmental problems, perhaps with a little help from real friends."

Meanwhile, my review of McKibben's recent book, "Deep Economy," --"More and better (without the) blues: Bill McKibben's Deep Economy as it should be" [also at] includes this observation: "McKibben admits that, for him, "it's extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know." But how can he hope to balance liberty and prosperity with community and quality of life if he continues to believe that "more" and "better" -- the global village and strong local communities -- cannot coexist or even support one another?"

During the Spanish Inquisition, leaders of that nation sought to impose their own moral authority over their people -- and slaughtered those who did not bow the knee. Sadly, today's moral arbiters of the global warming religion desire to conduct their own Inquisition, the result of which would surely be the continued devastation of hundreds of millions of lives year in and year out -- and millions of needless deaths, sacrificed to their (false) goddess of doom.

By Duggan Flanakin on 2008 04 19


Once again you have exposed the real limits of the conventional Western environmentalist perspective on both climate change and developing world economics. There seems to be an epic blind spot to the reality of billions of humans on the planet. They (the great masses in poverty) are basically assumed away (or there basic needs completely ignored) from the climate change argument because they are just too damn inconvenient for the conventional narrative.

By Tom Riley on 2008 04 15